These are some notes I took for English class back in college on “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” by Milan Kundera. I read a couple of his other books for the class and wrote an undergraduate thesis on them called “Keeping Body and Soul Together.” One of my thesis advisers thought that was a lame title.

Oh well. It could’ve been worse. Another guy in the class wrote a thesis about vampires. I asked our professor how it was. He said, “It picks up after page 80.” Another guy was also gonna write about vampires, but he dropped the class when he realized that Anne Rice was a hack. I realized she was a hack when I tried to listen to an audiocassette of one of her books in the car. It was so bad I tossed it out the window on a Beltway overpass.

Back then, I just read Kundera for the sex scenes, and I thought that’s really all there was to him. Two old guys getting blow jobs from young girls at an orgy party, looking over at each other and laughing, that kind of thing. Now, as I look over the notes I’m about to toss out, I’m starting to see other stuff in there: character development, back story, conflict—all that good stuff.

Kundera was pretty much banned from any meaningful work when he pissed off the Czech communist party, so he worked as an astrologer. Once he started doing that, all the party bigwigs would hang on his every word, like those fucking morons Ron and Nancy Reagan. Like porn, astrology is one of those things you do when no one will give you the time of day, or people think you’re too dangerous for a straight job.

I wrote a lot of really pretentious comment in the margins. The really sad part is that I wasn’t young enough for them to be cute when I wrote them. Fuck, man, I was almost 30. The even sadder part is that some of these comments I wrote just now.

If you think these notes can do you any good, you’re welcome to them. Hell, you can help yourself to anything that’s on the Internet, right?


Undated note card

More important, however, he makes me laugh out loud. The question is, is humor a manifestation of detachment from or engagement with life? In The Joke, the character says he uses wit to impress another young student, to make himself seem older and more detached. But does humor take us further from the essence of existence, or bring us closer to it?

(when you give quote, use lots of context)


Pt. One Lightness and Weight
Pt. Two Soul & Body
Pt. Three Words Misunderstood
Pt. Four Soul & Body
Pt. Five Lightness and Weight
Pt. Six The Grand March
Pt. Seven Karenin’s Smile

Pt. One Eternal Return
1 3 without it, no weight
dead in advance
4 if wars recurred, they’d be stupid
we don’t have this, so all is forgiven
even the guillotine becomes nostalgia (Salem Witch Trials 3/26/08 10:40 PM)
MK even reconciles with Hitler to have a past
“in this world, everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted” (okay, maybe once 3/26/08 10:41 PM)

5 ER—the heaviest of burdens
Our lives are splendidly light (?)
Love poetry—weight
Weight is real
We are insignificant
(unbearable) Parmenides—6th C. B.C.
philosophy POS fine/coarse NEG

6 I have been thinking about Tomas for many years. Only in the light of these reflections did I see him clearly.

Romance Just met Tereza—a child in a basket. Caught flu after sex. The key to his life—standing by a window, deliberating.

7 neither mistress nor wife
child in a basket
delicate aroma of fever (write a story about how all the women in your English class hate this portrayal, and how you come to doubt it, and then you meet the woman you spend the rest of your life with the same way—sunburn; how everything you read makes you question the authenticity of your relationship; how C eventually fell for you because you were so vulnerable and weak; how you hated her for pointing that out)
Love or hysteria of a man inept at love, with self-deluding need to simulate it?
No idea
Distress over vacillation
We cannot know what we want—no chance to compare it to last time or do it over
8 like an actor going on cold
a sketch of nothing
an outline with no picture
einmal ist keinmal—most of his foreign expressions are German, not Czech, but he gives the most extensive treatment to litost

4 9 she calls from her town
he says “wait”
he fears she’ll offer him her life
suitcase—life (it’s enormously heavy)
10 sudden decision follows two weeks’ hesitancy
divorcee, confirmed bachelor
always drove mistresses home
with her, he falls asleep for the first time
sleeps holding his hand

11 Tereza
– Pharoah’s daughter and Moses
– Polybus and Oedipus

Metaphors are dangerous—birth love

5 11 two years with wife
mother kept him from seeing son
for a while, he tries, then stops
no special ties to the child
paid support

12 parents condemned him
no wife, son or parents
desires, fears women
– compromise: erotic friendship—sentimentality has no place; no claims
– Rule of threes: see them three times quickly and never again, or often, but three weeks apart
– Sabina understands him best: “You’re the opposite of kitsch.” She gets Tereza a job. Mistress and best friend.

6 13 he violates clause excluding all love
other mistresses may revolt, so he moves T out
14 but with T, he looks forward to sex so they can literally sleep together
baby talk
he could control her sleep
15 if he gets up, she sleepwalks after him, in her skimpy nightdress
making love and sleeping are two separate passions
love manifests itself in the desire for shared sleep

7 1st dream—T has a Sabina nightmare
she tells Tomas, so he knows she’s read his letters
she learns more
at first, he denies his polygamy, but then he tries to justify it
17 he remembers jealousy
8 18 Her jealousy, tamed by day, bursts forth in dreams: cats; the swimming pool dream
19 Tomas shoots a woman, they laugh
he shoots T—“I’m not dead—I feel.” “So do we—you still feel stuff, though you’re dead.” [Conversations of the dead.]
9 19 compassion
if Latin-based, “with” + “suffering”—like pity, condescension toward sufferer
other tongues—“with” + “feeling”—the maximal capacity of affective imagination
Tomas feels with T and understands why she reads his letters

10 21 2 years later—worse
Tomas couldn’t be faithful
Saw no need
Pleasure? No, now he always sees Teresa [like Tamina]
2 most comfortable with Sabina
S: Tomas the libertine
Tomas the romantic lover
3 Bind: both women are jealous

11 23 marries Te, gives her a puppy
1/2 St. Bernard, 1/2 German Shepherd
names it Karenin
other puppies die


5 August 1968—Russia invades; 10 days later, he realizes that Te’s still unhappy
12 To rejects a Swiss doctor’s offer of asylum for Te’s sake—thinks she wants to stay to take pictures
6 Dubcek’s back
a drunken carnival of hate
His radio speech is pathetic—long pauses
Compromise with Moscow
Workaday humiliation begins

The real reason Te wants to leave—she’s never been happy

7 The Russian invasion made her happy
now it’s over—the television series of her dreams will resume, she fears (how you forgot your problems in Rio, or anywhere where others were more miserable than you)

13 27 Switzerland
He’s 40
S is rich, thanks to Russians
She comes to Zurich
Panties, bra, bowler hat
Te’s nightmares continue—she goes home

29 the Czech border is sealed—she’s GONE

14 staggering yet calming
no need to stare at the courtyard walls
she made the decision
beautiful melancholy
7 years with Te—better in retrospect than in reality
– constant dissembling
– only the beautiful remains
He reenters the field of lightness, but he fears sadness—won’t call women

15 31 he thinks of her leaving
feels compassion for her suffering—she infected him with compassion
compassion—heavier than tanks
intensified by imagination
He gives in, goes home

32 Es muss sein!
A line of music from Beethoven’s last quartet
She made Tomas get it

16 3 Beethoven—weight was positive
schwer—difficult, heavy
necessity, weight, value
only necessity is heavy
only heavy has value
great man bears fate
Muss es sein?

4 we cannot conduct an experiment to determine whether to follow our hearts

17 she would’ve fallen in love w/Z if not for T
she would’ve loved anyone
Chance, Es könnte auch ander sein, not es muss sein
not 5 How they met—six chance happenings
destiny Tereza—the personification of absolute fortuity
No compassion—despair

[Not a situation similar to a previous one, but the exact situation repeated, with the benefit of the knowledge of its last occurrence]

Part Two—short bits, not plot

1 39 [Metafiction] characters aren’t real
2 *40 The irreconcilable duality of body and soul

Body & [The marvelous language of pre-science]
Soul [The reductive language of science]
[Joke] [Refuting reductiveness]

3 1 wishes away her mother’s features
4 billiard simile—her life continues her mother’s like one billiard ball hitting another
2 mother had been proud, had had nine suitors
the ninth one got her pregnant with Tereza—resentment

5 seeks blame—finds Tereza
5 her stepfather used to follow her into the bathroom

45 she locked him out. Her mother was furious
“Tereza cannot reconcile herself to the idea that the human body pisses and farts.”

7 6 mother’s acts—a single grand gesture
a casting off of youth and beauty
mother has become immodest
Tereza is a continuation of casting off
She moves nervously, without grace [kinda like Joe, maybe]

8 7 secret vice: mirror
wants to see her soul, which often won’t show
To the outsider lifted her spirits
Also the book reader
Fielding to Mann
—escape, but also emblem of secret brotherhood
also made her old-fashioned
young men with transistor radios were modern

9 8 the six improbabilities
chance speaks to us

[once you turn reality into a book or a movie, it’s like a butterfly under glass]

10 50 Rm. 6, 6:00 shift
he slips her his card

11 1 chance gives her the courage to leave
we are bombarded with coincidence
we just don’t notice it
2 the train motif in Anna Karenina that brackets it
life is like that—novelistic, circular
we compose our lives according to the laws of beauty
so don’t chide the novel for its fascination with coincidence
chide man for ignoring it

12 she had been embarrassed
13 her scream—naïve idealism of her love trying to banish all contradictions, banish the duality of body and soul, banish perhaps even time

14 6 sees her jealousy as a burden
15 7 Mother: your body is like all others [no right to shame]
Dream: women rejoice at uniformity
8 death will render sameness absolute
solidarity of the soulless
she’d come to Tomas to escape that world; his infidelity sends her back